Special Olympics GB athlete Ian Harper tells his story of determination and why understanding and time are the key ingredients for people with intellectual disabilities when it comes to employment.

Did you know that 94% of people with an intellectual disability are not in paid employment?  A truly shocking figure, and sadly, a figure that has not changed for decades.  

It is also a statistic which goes hand-in-hand with many others such as 77% of young disabled adults (in the 18-34 age group) feel lonely; Eight out of ten children with an intellectual disability are bullied and ALL are socially excluded. 

During Covid-19, the feelings of loneliness and isolation were common to lots of us. For many people, not being able to work also highlighted the many benefits paid employment can bring to someone’s life from friendships to independence, pride, that feeling of being part of a community, not to mention the mental health benefits and financial gain as well.  

So, imagine what that must be like for someone to live in isolation ALL the time. Without a global pandemic. That is what it is like for many people with intellectual disabilities living outside of Covid-19.  This is their reality – day in, day out.  Think about that for a moment. 

Meet Ian Harper. Ian is an extraordinary man.  He is also an incredibly busy man.  Ian has been a Special Olympics GB athlete for well over 20 years competing in athletics with Special Olympics Worcestershire winning multiple different medals including winning gold 3 times at 3 different SOGB summer Games & Gold in the European Games in the Czech Republic in 2005.   

He is the Chair of the Special Olympics GB Athlete Leadership Team, and a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger for Special Olympics, representing 58 countries across the Europe and Eurasia region.  

And if that isn’t enough, Ian holds down a part-time job as a Service Quality Director for a company called Aspire Living – which offers support for people with intellectual disabilities or as Ian prefers to say: “people of determination.”  A phrase, Ian first heard during the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019, which he absolutely loved and still uses to this day.  

Ian’s success is incredible and very well deserved. He is a funny, warm, lovely man with a great sense of humour. Ian is also the perfect example of how Special Olympics GB can also help someone with an intellectual disability develop life and friendship skills through taking part in sport and competition.  

But like many of our athletes, to get to this point in life has not been easy for Ian. Badly bullied at school, misunderstood and written-off in the workplace, he has had to overcome many, many barriers to be where he is today.   

Intellectual disabilities are also known as “hidden disabilities” and Ian’s experiences demonstrate how difficult it can be for someone with a hidden disability in society, which can often bring out the worst in people.  As he explains: “The school that I went to, was that bad, that two lads got expelled because I got ripped to pieces. Because they thought I was good for nothing. I was even thrown like a rag doll on one occasion which was not good at all. Literally.” 

And when Ian tried to move into the world of employment, his experiences were “not good” either.  

“After I left school, I applied for thousands of jobs, but nobody wanted to know because of my disability. It made me feel flat, depressed and excluded.” 

Then, when he did manage to get a job, things proved to be tough.   

As Ian explains: “First of all, people assumed there was nothing wrong with me. They assumed things about me and told me to get lost and all that. They would say there was nothing wrong with him.  Then when I say I am autistic, they think I’m not capable of things and that I can be sent to the end of the line when giving people things to do.” 

“My experience in the workplace is that companies don’t really care,” continues Ian.  “This is the job. This is what you’ve got to do. Then they leave you for three or four hours contemplating. They don’t have the proper understanding of the person or education and understanding of what sort of help that you might need to make sure the job is done. I don’t think there has been much improvement even now. The fact that only 6% of people with an intellectual disability are in paid employment is pretty diabolical.  My experiences have been quite shocking unfortunately.” 

But with talk of diversity and inclusion high on society’s agenda for the future, the time for meaningful change and inclusion to happen is now.   

A point Ian wholeheartedly agrees with: “Companies need to focus on what someone can do and not what they can’t.  When someone with an intellectual disability is at a job interview, companies should not just look at the person because they will automatically see them as disabled. Instead, they should look at the person and find out what passion they have to want to work for the company. Ask them what they have to offer in terms of skills, ideas, creativity and how they will dedicate to the job."  

And if a company does employ someone with an intellectual disability, what next?  

Ian says: “Firstly, what companies have to do, is to adapt to the person’s needs. For example, Easy Read documents, pictures, different colour texts on the words etc. Second, think about the pace given in training for the job, like slowing the pace down so they will be able to fully understand and act on the job. And third, making sure the amount of time for companies to give apprentices with intellectual disabilities the time they need.  Because for some people, they might need a bit longer than others to train fully up to the company’s standards. 

“Another important tip is for the staff to learn about the person and their ability not disability and how they can help the person to be part of the team. That helps drive the company’s ambitions and growth as well as being inclusion friendly at the same time.” 

With meaningful focus on ability rather than disability Ian strongly believes that, “Someone with an intellectual disability, can keep up with the work pace with the right training and support.”    

“I’ve been lucky to get a job,” said Ian. “My father gave me my first job working in the entertainment industry where I learned my skills. Then at 23 I got the opportunity to become a Service Quality Director for Aspire Living.  It made me feel happy, ambitious and progressive, because it showed that I am capable of working (and challenged the illusion of all of those people who did not believe in me).  

“I have ambitious goals for the future and if given support I could really thrive.  What I have done so far is just the beginning of me showing what I am capable of.”  

“Inclusion is the key ingredient to give people with determination. It’s about giving people with an Intellectual disability the skills, the tools and the opportunities that they need.   

Continues Ian: “I don’t think I could have got to where I am today if it wasn’t for Special Olympics GB in the first place. I think before I joined Special Olympics GB I felt completely trapped.  Had Special Olympics not come into my life I do not think I would be in this position now if I am honest. I would be stuck. I owe Special Olympics so much. I owe them confidence, skills, friendships and determination plus so many amazing opportunities.”   

As Ian’s story demonstrates, Special Olympics GB is more than just an opportunity to take part in sport – it genuinely transforms lives. For some of our athletes to find one friend is enough to transform their lives.  For others learning social skills, having the chance to be more independent, finding their voice, building confidence, experiencing pride in their achievements and that feeling of being accepted somewhere that is supportive and fun – all of which filters into their lives as much off the field of play as on. All of which increases the chances of our athletes being able to move into paid employment.  

The opportunity to be included in society is a fundamental right for the lives of our athletes. The feeling of acceptance genuinely does transforms lives.  And more needs to be done.  Special Olympics GB is perfectly positioned to be able to do this, but we can’t do this alone. If you’d like to make a donation please click HERE or if you’d like to become involved in some way please click HERE.  

Many thanks to Ian for sharing your inspirational story.